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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: December 2017

12 - Guiding Grief: Liturgical Poetry and Ritual Lamentation in Early Byzantium




Early Byzantine liturgical texts present a confusing array of material on grief and bereavement. On the one hand, homilies abound in which Christians were exhorted to constrain their grief for their departed. In these texts, one hears strong notes from the literary conventions of pre-Christian philosophical consolation, flavoured with the particular tastes of Christian expectation and hope. Homilists such as Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom and others admonished that grief and lamentation were unseemly for the faithful Christian.1 Such preachers disdained the emotive performances of grief that accompanied traditional funeral practices, viewing them as ‘pagan’ and unsuitable for Christians. Instead, Christians should live in hope-filled expectation of the final resurrection.

In the late fourth century, for example, John Chrysostom scorned traditional mourning, derisively dismissing laments as ‘blasphemies’ and professional mourning as a ‘disease of females’. A century later at the eastern edges of the Byzantine realm, Jacob of Sarug complained of women in the cemeteries who mourned their beloved dead with personal, chaotic, even ‘violent’ grief, like ‘mad women’. Jacob's dismay was partly due to his desire to order personal emotion through the normative structures of Christian liturgy. Rather than tearfully haunting the cemeteries, he admonished, one should come to the church for memorial services, with pious, reverent and quiet tears. Jacob also worried that the public display of mourning was a practice of generally negative impact. ‘When [the soul] hears the lamenting voice of wailing women’, he warned, ‘she [the soul] moves in grief and sheds abundant tears for the dead.’ Such encounters left a person disoriented and distracted, for proximate mourning – mourning overheard – inevitably opened one's own wounds of loss. Better, again, to allow the comforts of formal liturgy to present one's sorrow to God in fitting fashion. Such platitudes encrusted the thin morsels of consolation offered to the bereft amidst the formalities of late antique Christian funeral celebration.

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Greek Laughter and Tears
  • Online ISBN: 9781474403801
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